Desktop and Laptop Upgrade

CMR Reader Karen Parker decided she wanted to replace an older Windows 7 desktop with some newer hardware. Rather than purchasing a new system, she decided to ‘build her own’, and then transfer her OS and applications and data to the new system.

And then, apparently on a ‘roll’, she decided to upgrade her Windows 8 laptop with a new internal SSD drive, moving its current drive to an external box.

So in the CMR grand tradition of “I did so you don’t have to” (or “you may want to, too”), we share her experience. – Editor

For many years I’ve followed the theory that when you get a new machine you get one that is one step back from the bleeding edge (I may well have learned this from you.) This has the advantage that the machine is good for a long time, and you don’t spend a lot of money upgrading every other year, and the disadvantage that you frequently end up waiting a while before getting new technology. This last point is the hook that caught me with my desktop upgrade.

The old desktop machine was about seven years old, based on a Core i7-920 processor. My theory was that I’d get a new processor, motherboard, and ram and just install them in my existing case, reusing the video board, disc drives, etc. I decided on a new Core i7-5820 six-core processor, and off to my local Micro-Center I went. They pointed me to an Asrock motherboard, suitable memory, and oh, by the way, you need a cpu cooler since the chip doesn’t come with one in the box. I took it all home and hit the first snag — the cooler was too tall to fit in the case. Back to micro-center the next day for a new case and power supply.

After a day or so of studying all the instructions (it’s been several years since I assembled a computer after all) I gritted my teeth and put it all together. So far, so good.

My plan was to boot the machine into safe mode, install the new motherboard drivers, reboot, and go. So much for plans . . .

Then machine would start to boot and then blue screen. After a bit of research on the web, and a bit of thought I realized what the problem was. The old machine only implemented one way of talking to SATA drives, the IDE protocol. AHCI hadn’t been invented when I built that machine, but in the mean time it has become the default. I powered up the machine, went into the BIOS, and sure enough, the SATA ports were set to AHCI. I reset them to IDE, booted the machine and it came right up. I then installed the motherboard drivers, rebooted again, and the machine was alive and fully functional.

The only fly in the ointment was that it’s still using IDE protocol for the drives, hardly optimal, especially for my SSD boot drive.

Another web search revealed the necessary incantation to force Windows to detect AHCI and install the necessary drivers. You need to run regedit to go into the system registry and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE/SYSTEM/CurrentControlset/Services/msahci. Select the “start” value, right-click it and select “Modify” and then set its value to “0”.

Exit regedit, reboot, go into the bios, change the SATA ports from IDE to AHCI, and then reboot again. Windows will load the drivers, and then reboot once more, and Bob’s Your Uncle. I did have to re-authenticate my copy of Windows, but that was done automatically over the internet, and took only a moment.

In the end, I managed to put a whole new machine under my existing copy of Windows, without a reinstall, always a painful proposition that takes at least a week of reinstalling and reconfiguring software.

As an aside of sorts, I have to comment on the design of the new case. This is the first case I’ve used that provides for routing the cables behind the motherboard, and it was an absolute joy to work with. A far cry from the days when you had PATA ribbon cables sprouting out of the middle of the motherboard, and running willy-nilly through the middle of the case. Tool free drive caddies are very nice too.

Upgrading the Laptop

Apparently the planets converged this summer because my laptop came due for an upgrade too. The machine I selected is a fairly ordinary high end lap top, with a Core i7 processor and 17 inch display. It was equipped with a 1 TB 5400 rpm disc drive, so I decided to buy a 500 GB SSD and external enclosure, planning to put the SSD into the machine and the disc drive in the external enclosure.

The SSD came with a license for Acronis True Image cloning software, so I downloaded it and cloned the hard drive to the SSD. I thought that there might be problems cloning a larger drive into a smaller one, but the software seemed to be ok with it, and besides, that big drive was mostly empty anyway. The clone worked just fine, so I went ahead and swapped the disc drive and the SSD, easy enough but requiring the removal and replacement of 16 or so tiny screws. Then I booted the machine, and all hell broke loose.

The machine would boot, but was very balky about doing anything. Any sort of disc operation, in particular, seemed to take half of forever, if it would complete at all. I spent a couple of days trying to fix the machine, to no avail.

So, undo those 16 tiny screws, swap the drives again, and verify that the machine had regained its sanity. I also plugged the SSD, in the external case, into my desktop machine, which promptly complained that the drive needed repair. I let it run chkdsk on the SSD, and after that it could read the SSD just fine. This was the hint I needed.

I formatted the SSD, cloned the disc onto it again, but this time ran chkdsk on it. Chkdsk found and fixed a bunch of errors, when it was done I verified that the SSD contained everything it should, and copied several files back and forth between the disc and the SSD. All seemed to be well, so I undid those 16 tiny screws yet again and swapped the drives.

This time it all worked, and I now have a laptop that boots lightening quick and runs great, along with one TB of external storage. Bottom line, cloning software works well, but it’s probably a good idea to run chkdsk on the cloned drive before you try to use it.

Finally, a question for [Chaos Manor] advisors. My desktop machines is currently running an Nvidia 630 graphics card, certainly not the most powerful card out that. The rest of the machine is pretty high powered, Core i7-5820 processor, 8 GB of RAM, SSD boot drive, 2 TB of other storage, and two monitors. The primary use is processing photos and writing and laying out books, so basically it needs to run MS Office and Adobe Creative Suite, but no games. Do you (collectively) have any suggestions as to what might be a better video card, or even if I need something better?

The Chaos Manor Advisors responded with some thoughts

From Peter Glazkowsky

The one good consequence of the fact that PCs aren’t  improving as rapidly as they used to is that older systems are still useful. Pretty much any desktop from the last six or eight years would be fine for reading and writing things.

From Eric Pobirs

    If gaming is not an issue, the main thing to look for in a video card upgrade is the improvement for Adobe Creative Suite and other software that in recent versions can enlist the GPU for additional processing power and not just display tasks. A lot of the stuff that once drove the purchase of dedicated accelerator boards is now well within the functionality of a modern GPU.

From Alex Pournelle

And the built-in graphics are getting better all the time. Intel’s next generation of graphics claim 30-45% improvement.

From Peter Glaskowsky

Since the Core i7-920 processor was introduced less than seven years ago, she might have made an exception to the “wait a year” rule, or maybe the machine isn’t as old as she thinks. Might as well clear that up before publishing, if possible, so as to avoid confused readers and unnecessary feedback.

As for her graphics card question, her applications don’t require anything better. A significant upgrade would cost maybe $80-$100, but it’s possible she wouldn’t even notice the difference.

It might be worth checking with Adobe to see if her version of Creative Suite supports GPU acceleration, and if so, what graphics cards can be used. It may be that a workstation-class card will deliver a significant performance enhancement in those applications.

Many workstation cards are available for under $100, but for the same price as a consumer card, a workstation card will usually come with an older, slower GPU. So it would take some work to figure out how much it would cost to deliver a meaningful speed boost.

[If you readers have thoughts, use the comments below. And if you would like to share your experience, we’re looking for more stories. – Editor]